The Traditional Watchmaker- a Historical Perspective

When an internet search is initiated to find a watch repair shop, what terms are usually used….antique watch repair…vintage watch repair…old hand-wound watch? Chances are it probably is not “watchmaker”. But this term was commonly used to describe someone in the trade of watch repair, that is before the advent of battery operated watches.

A Watchmaker was originally a craftsman or artisan who made pocket watches from scratch. In later years this term became synonymous with a person who repaired both pocket and wristwatches due to the knowledge and dexterity needed. Even though actual watch manufacture was not part of a watchmaker’s duties, a similar level of expertise was needed to repair a watch. Understanding of theory, mechanics, metallurgy, and manual dexterity was required. If a part was not available, it had to be made from scratch. This was especially true of the watchmaker who was isolated from urban centers where parts were not readily available.

Although requirements differ in each country, traditionally a watchmaker would have many years of apprenticeship under a skilled craftsman, and then would join a guild (specialized groups for any particular craft or trade). In more recent times, states and provinces would issue an official registration for watchmakers meeting specific requirements. Many schools existed for watchmakers, and companies such as Elgin provided training for employees. As part of this training, many classes required the student to make a pocket watch (using pre-engineered part dies and molds).

As the mechanical watch fell from favor and cheaper quartz watches dominated the market, the number of watchmakers diminished as they aged and retired. Schools slowly closed and formal training opportunities became limited. Traditional watchmakers were becoming rare.

Many watchmakers today have learned their skills through apprenticeship under experienced watchmakers. For the self-taught, tremendous amounts of information can be obtained by searching scanned internet archives such as Google books. There are also several training options available (although very limited). 

Finding the right person to repair your watch depends much on the age of the timepiece and the particular expertise of the watchmaker. This subject will be covered in a future article

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